October 30, 2020
Guest Blog

The Path Ahead for Funders When it Comes to Data for Equity: Listen, Engage, and Then Act

Stacey McDonald, Learning and Evaluation Specialist, Ontario Trillium Foundation

I’ve been with the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) for 10 years, working with data, learning and evaluation. During that time, my perspective on data has changed significantly. I went from looking at data as something simply objective and positive that should significantly inform our decision-making to looking at it as something that is highly subjective that can be used for both good and ill. My change in thinking has been informed in large part by colleagues and leaders, like those in PFC’s webinar last week on Data for Equity. I’m on a learning journey that’s spanned years and is still in progress.

The truth is, that for many people in leadership or senior positions – who are also white like me – data has not been used in harmful ways against us. We haven’t been over-researched or ignored altogether; it’s so much easier for us to think that data is objective. But it isn’t. The numbers don’t speak for themselves [1]. Our values, perspectives, interests, and motivations are reflected in what data we do (or do not) collect, how it’s collected, our interpretation of what it means and whether it’s recognized as valid, and what actions we do or do not take as a result.

As funders, we often collect data to answer our questions: “What happened?”, “How were funds used?”, “Who benefits?” Then, we make often difficult and important decisions about who gets funded. Data has power, and if we want data to be used in service of the communities we want to support, then we need to examine how we engage with and use data.

PFC’s Data for Equity webinar’s panellists, Kris Archie, CEO of The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Orville Wallace of the Laidlaw Foundation, Dr. Srividya Iyer, the Scientific-Clinical Director of ACCESS Open Minds, and Tasha Lackman, Vice President of the Fondation du Grand Montréal, layout clear calls to action for funders:

  1. Co-design data practices with the community. Actively listen to and engage with equity-seeking groups at all stages of engagement with data, from data collection to sensemaking.
  2. The process of getting to the answer is just as important as the answer itself. Let’s examine how the rush to get things done comes at the cost of meaningful collaboration with key voices, and make room for more meaningful engagement. Let’s take the time needed to build relationships and the trust needed to truly co-design data practices that are in the service of equity.
  3. Address gaps in data equity. Data can help us understand a situation and can be used to correct inequities, but only if we collect the right data (such as race-based data), think very carefully about how we use it, and engage the community in making sense of the results
  4. Listen, then act. When it comes to people, there is no such thing as a complete and perfect dataset – so let’s not allow the lack of perfect information to stop or delay us from acting. Equity-seeking communities know the issues. We need to listen and then work together to determine if, and what, additional data is needed before moving ahead to action.
  5. Let’s focus on building our (funders’) capacity to use data and our data practices, instead of always talking about the lack of capacity in those we fund. We collect so much data that is underutilized. Let’s start by examining our practices, and if they are imposing greater inequities.
  6. We need to advance our learning by engaging with BIPOC communities and organizations. If we don’t want to burden them, then let’s fund them abundantly.
What did I learn from the webinar?

Funders need to listen, engage and then we need to act. I am grateful to have participated in this webinar, as I continue my learning journey and examine OTF’s data practices. For OTF, that includes:

  • carrying out a data audit to carefully examine what data we’re collecting and what we are doing with it,
  • collecting data in applications to better understand our funding to Black-serving and Black-led organizations, and
  • partnering with PFC to engage funders in the development of a Data Strategy for Funders.

Please reach out to Inès Chaâlala, Director of Learning & Partnerships at PFC and join us as we explore how we can better collect and use data that increases the impact of our work. Let’s continue on this learning journey together.

 

[1] D’Ignatius, C. & Klein, L. (2018). Chapitre cinq; The Numbers Don’t Speak for Themselves. Dans Data Feminism. https://mitpressonpubpub.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/6ui5n4vo

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